Public Housing – on the up and up and up!

26 May 2016 | Posted In: #129 Winter 2016, #132 Winter 2017, Housing Types and Issues, Public Housing, Public Housing – Redevelopment, Urban Development, | Author: Geoff Turnbull


The redevelopment of large public housing estates has until now been focused away from the inner city.  Redevelopment is now going high-rise, raising many new issues under the government’s Future Directions policy. Geoff Turnbull explores what is driving the Waterloo and Ivanhoe redevelopments.

The Auditor General’s report in 2013 made it official that the system was cannibalising itself to stay alive. Michael Coutts-Trotter, head of Family and Community Services (FACS), put it this way in an ISV article in 2013 “In fact the portfolio has been depleted at an average of 2.5 properties a day for a decade. Properties have been sold and not replaced to help fund maintaining the balance of the portfolio in reasonable condition because rent and commonwealth and state funding have not been sufficient.”

The sell-off of public housing in Millers Point has been the most public of these sell offs. But all around the state public housing has been sold off. “For Sale” notices have been going up on public housing in inner suburbs like Glebe, Surry Hills and the Waterloo conservation area. These sales have alarmed many inner city public tenants who believe they too will be moved out because of the desirability of the land they occupy.

It is within this context that in January 2016 the Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister for Social Housing, Brad Hazzard, released Future Directions for Social Housing in NSW which sets out the government’s strategy for redeveloping its public / social housing over the next ten years. Social housing includes public, Aboriginal and community housing. (Q&As regarding Future Directions can be found at

At the heart of this new strategy, Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC), which owns public housing, will fast-track redevelopment through a new mechanism to grow supply of housing stock – Communities Plus. This will be done through partnerships with private sector developers, finance and non-government organisations.

The policy promises the “new social housing developments will be modern, look the same as neighbouring private dwellings and be close to transport, employment and other community services”. The policy expects to generate $22 billion in construction activity in NSW over 10 years with 23,500 new and replacement social and affordable housing dwellings.

Central to the strategy is development of projects in proximity to UrbanGrowth’s priority renewal areas where planning agencies can up-zone land to build larger redevelopments that deliver 70:30 ratios of private to social housing. The aim is to renew social housing stock and increase the amount of social housing where practicable, funded by the creation of private housing.

The policy uses as an example “the eight hectare Ivanhoe Estate at Macquarie Park (currently with 259 social housing dwellings), will be transformed into a high quality integrated community with more than 1,800 private, 556 social and 128 affordable housing dwellings”.

Minister Hazzard’s Waterloo estate redevelopment announcement stated “the Waterloo estate will be part of the property portfolio offered through Communities Plus”. Ivanhoe and Waterloo estates are both in areas where the government, through UrbanGrowth, wants to develop higher densities around railway stations. Both areas require an increase in planning controls (height and floor space) to make them work.

In May 2016 Sydney Council revealed that the NSW government proposed to remove the Waterloo development from Council control and they campaigned against it (see page 31). While Waterloo was declared a State Significant Precinct in May 2017, removing it from Council control, Council managed to negotiate a key role for itself and its requirements in the process.

The message is clear – public housing situated near railway stations, a proposed light rail line or which is in an area targeted for increased density is ripe for redevelopment under the new policy.

On 16 December 2015 the NSW Government announced a new Metro Station would be built at Waterloo enabling the redevelopment of public housing in Waterloo. UrbanGrowth had pushed for the new station on the basis it would justify an up-zoning and allow the estate to be redeveloped.

The Waterloo announcement was short on detail. It created great anxiety and uncertainty just before Christmas when local community centres were closed. It took until Minister Hazzard’s meeting on 18th February for a Q&A sheet to be produced which clarified that the area to be redeveloped was the consolidated estate with its 2,012 public housing units.

An initial map included the adjoining heritage conservation area where estate consolidation was stopped by the 1970s Green Bans, as documented in Tom Zubrycki‘s film Waterloo. In 2011 there were 188 apartments and 336 terraces and town houses in this area – some have since been sold and it has not been clarified if sales will continue.

The Waterloo announcement was for “the delivery of an additional 10,000 homes”. In May 2016 UrbanGrowth clarified that half of these homes would be in the surrounding area and half would be new private and affordable housing delivered in addition to an increased amount of social housing on the estate. Together the total number of units expected on the current estate will be a bit over 7,000 increasing by 3 ½ times.

Depending on how you do the estimates, that is between 13,000 and 14,000 people on 19 hectares (ha) approximately 700 people/ha. By contrast Central Pyrmont has 395/ha and the old ACI site has 360/ha. UrbanGrowth says density will be similar to Green Square Town Centre. Council argue this contains a lot of commercial floor space so it, and the CBD, cannot be compared with residential areas.  According to Sydney Council papers the proposed density is much higher than the Green Square average and rivals the densest parts of Hong Kong and New York. UrbanGrowth has said developments in the corridor will be up to 35 storeys – the highest towers currently in Waterloo are 30 storeys.

Earlier proposals for Waterloo estate proposed lower densities. The leaked Redfern-Waterloo cabinet papers in 2004 indicated around 5,600 units and the Redfern Waterloo Authority’s Draft Built Environment Plan 2 in 2011 proposed 3,920 units with a loss of 305 public housing units which was opposed by local groups. The earlier plan was considered uneconomical by government until the Metro station offered the possibility to increase densities.

UrbanGrowth has indicated it wants to talk to the community about how tenure mix might be delivered at Waterloo. In the earlier suburban estate redevelopments, the aim was to have public and private houses in the same street looking the same, but what is the equivalent for high-rise estates like Waterloo and Ivanhoe? Do they have mix on each floor, within each building or in separate buildings? How will this work if social tenants are people with high needs and human services support does not improve?

Mixed buildings can create strata issues when a large portion of units are owned by one party which can disproportionally influence strata decisions. Separate strata within a building can address that problem but would work against people socially mixing as would separate buildings. In one case in a Melbourne renewal a brick wall was erected between the private building and its private space, and the public building. Much work remains to be done if there is to be a viable model in Sydney to deliver high-rise social mix. Community group REDWatch has raised a list of similar questions about the Waterloo redevelopment on its website.

Almost 2 years after the initial announcement there is still no clarity about the details of the proposal. The master planning will determine the detail. The Environment Impact Statement (EIS) for the Metro line and Waterloo station went on exhibition in May 2016 but it only covers the Metro Station construction. What might be built above the underground station will be determined in the same master plan as the Estate

UrbanGrowth’s Central to Eveleigh team prepared an Urban Transformation Study for the entirety of its area, which it released in 2016. While much of the preparation predates the Waterloo announcement, it will also guide renewal in the estate. UrbanGrowth will prepare the Master Plan for LAHC, LAHC will handle master plan engagement and FACS Housing will continue day-to-day dealing with tenants.

Geoff Turnbull is the Co-editor of Inner Sydney Voice Magazine.

This article was updated in mid-2017 for the Winter 2017 special ISV on Redeveloping Waterloo Public Housing.